News Story

Detroit Pols: No Political Loot, No Bridge

How do politicians in a one-party system distinguish themselves from the competition? If that system is Detroit, the evidence of the past 40 years suggests that it’s not by providing good, honest government. Instead, one way is delivering political loot in the form of more welfare benefits for individuals, contracts or subsidies for certain business owners, and handouts to community organizations, many of which are extremely political.

Political patronage, in other words - the classic tools of political machines everywhere. One of these tools is a bag of boodle called “community benefits,” which are often the political price of large construction projects in America’s one-party rule “urban core” cities. Who pays for these political spoils? Ideally taxpayers who live someplace else.

Thus, as Gov. Rick Snyder tries to round up votes in the Michigan Legislature to approve a controversial Detroit-Windsor bridge, statements from Detroit politicians like the following are completely predictable:

"If he wants another bridge, he's going to have to come to the negotiating table with Democrats. If he thinks we're going to just blindly give him support, without some community benefits involved, he's got another thing coming."

That was Rep. Harvey Santana, one of 15 Detroit Democrats in the Michigan Legislature – there are no Detroit Republicans - speaking to the MIRS news service. Earlier this year, another Detroit legislator sent a letter to the rest of the city’s delegation encouraging them to actively campaign for the “benefits.” The Detroit city council has passed a resolution urging the Legislature to hand over the goods. These last two links are from the website of an organization comprised of many of the likely recipients of the loot, which is very active in politicking for it.

No doubt the politicians who have sponsored or voted for any of the seven bills introduced over the past three years to mandate “community benefits” as the price of a bridge – one of which actually passed in the House last year - will object to the “political loot” label. Here’s how the House Fiscal Agency described the bill that passed last year; readers can judge for themselves whether the label is apt:  

The term "community benefits agreement" refers to a private contract between an owner, contractor, developer, or concessionaire and representatives of communities, including community organizations, neighborhood associations or other residential groups, and labor, environmental, and faith-based organizations that implements benefits to the community to mitigate the negative impacts of the proposed development.  Such benefits could include preservation, restoration, or replacement of community resources affected by the project; jobs, employment training, and related facilities; modifications or remedies for structures or equipment affected by the development; economic development; housing and sustainable investment in home repair programs; improving air quality programs; and green development initiatives.

That bill passed the House by a one-vote margin and no Republicans, when Democrats had a 67-43 majority, and it never got a vote in the GOP-controlled Senate. This year, Republicans have a 63-47 House majority, and 26-12 in the Senate. To become statute today, the Republican Speaker of the House Jase Bolger and the Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville would first have to allow a vote to take place in each body. Then, if every Democrat voted “yes,” eight Republicans in the Senate and nine in the House would also have to press the green button.

Alternatively, it's possible that Gov. Snyder could make a closed-door deal with Detroit Democrats to steer equivalent forms of loot to the city through administrative actions.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.